Nixon in China

by Rob Tiller

Saturday afternoon Sally and I made it to North Hills Cinema to see the Metropolitan Opera’s simulcast of Nixon in China by John Adams. I’d been looking forward to the event all season. Although I’d never seen NIC, I’m a big fan of Adams’s music for orchestra. It builds on the spare vocabulary of American minimalism both rhythmically and harmonically towards something that I think of as edgy romanticism.

The idea of an opera about Nixon going to China seemed at first outrageous and possibly hopeless. For those of us who observed Nixon in his lifetime, he seems a most unlikely hero. In retrospect, he looks a lot more moderate, responsible, and intelligent than we liberals thought at the time, particularly in comparison with today’s leading so-called conservatives. But even after giving extra credit, Nixon simply does not fit any standard opera hero template. At his very best, he was awkward, unsexy, and egotistical in an almost comic way.

Nixon in China takes all that and works with it. There is a comic and ironic aspect to the work, but that’s only one of many levels. The historical events are treated with some respect, and the humanity of the characters is acknowledged. But the music takes this material in surprising directions. Along with the simple storyline (the Nixons go to China) are several individual story lines that have the gauzy jumpy quality of dreams.

Adams himself conducted the performance on Saturday. At one intermission, he referred to the Met orchestra as a Ferrari of an orchestra — one of the best in the world — which I think is true. As Nixon, James Maddalena captures something of the weird contradictions of the man, though he seemed to have some difficult moments vocally. Janis Kelly was surprisingly touching as Pat Nixon, and had the vocal strength of a Wagnerian soprano. Kathleen Kim was funny but also terrifying as Madame Mao. It was good to hear the interviews with Peter Sellars, who’s both brilliant and comic, and Mark Morris, who’s brilliant as well.

I liked the music a lot, but I didn’t think this was necessarily the ultimate Nixon production. The Mark Morris dance sections were wonderful, but elsewhere big chunks of Sellars’s staging were surprisingly static. I thought the sets were in places too literal and in places too conceptual. But I would definitely watch it again, and I will be thinking about it for a while.